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       Nujeen, p.7

           Nujeen Mustafa
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  When Mustafa and my father went to Kobane to meet the girl’s family and agree the engagement, how much dowry etc, they got stopped at an FSA checkpoint where the commander demanded money. The man recognized them so took $1,500 – Mustafa said otherwise he might have demanded $5,000. Actually it was lucky because he was carrying gold bracelets, rings and necklaces for the dowry and if the commander had found that he would have taken them all.

  In those days people were always coming to our house, refugees like us fleeing Aleppo or other cities. They came and drank tea and crunched pistachios and each told the story of their own migration, how they ran away. I had to turn off the TV when they came which was annoying, but that’s not the only reason I hated it. After they left I cried and my mum asked why. ‘It’s like everyone has opened their own channel and is broadcasting migrant news,’ I said. ‘Don’t be upset,’ she replied. ‘The most important thing is we are together and nothing has happened to us.’

  Her sister, my aunt Shamsa, and her husband Uncle Bozan, whose daughter Azmar had studied law with Nahda and then married my brother Farhad in England, had also left Aleppo and moved next door with their other children. Uncle Bozan was an olive-oil dealer and they had been rich in Aleppo with a nice house but had left everything behind apart from their nice car. ‘All I want is for my children to be safe,’ my aunt said.

  One day in March 2013, Uncle Bozan and their son Mohammed had to go to Damascus to get some documents so that Mohammed could study abroad. Just outside Manbij they were stopped by an armed group who pointed guns at their car and made them get out. They seized Mohammed and told my uncle to go and get 2 million Syrian pounds then they would release him.

  Uncle Bozan came back to Manbij in a terrible state. Everyone was trying to raise the money. On the third day Jamila had come to be with Aunt Shamsa, and Nasrine opened the door to go and join her when she exclaimed loudly. Cousin Mohammed was walking down the street. He said the armed group had taken him to a place somewhere in the desert between Hama and Homs where there was a local tribal sheikh who was angry and told them to let him go.

  In early 2013 Assad’s forces raised the stakes and started firing huge Russian Scud missiles into residential areas of Aleppo. Even more people fled. It seemed to me there couldn’t be any people left in Aleppo. You can only imagine how many names we recognized in the list of dead people, especially Nasrine. She was always like ‘Oh I know her or him.’ Once she cried because a Scud bombed the block of her best friend Wedad in Aleppo and she thought she must be dead. For ages, her friend’s phone just rang out and we imagined the worst. Finally a day later she called. She had survived but the block was destroyed and many people died.

  I knew we weren’t going back to Aleppo. After we’d been in Manbij about six months my parents went back to get our stuff. Yaba didn’t want to go, but we Kurdish women are very strong and Mustafa joked that my father was more afraid of my mother than of the war. When they got there they found dust and rubble everywhere and our building was the only one still standing. In our building every window was broken except for ours which Ayee had left open. It was like a ghost town, they said.

  Not long after that, in April, we heard that regime jets had dropped chemicals on Sheikh Maqsoud – canisters that exploded and left people foaming at the mouth and narrowed their pupils into pinpricks. Among the dead were two babies.

  In some ways I am glad I never went back as I still have the picture in my head of the beautiful city I left behind. Not the bad Aleppo Nasrine and my parents saw. Nasrine says she wished she had never gone back.

  Days of Our Lives became a lifeline – the one thing that could make me forget bombing – and I watched it fiercely, glaring at anyone who dared speak while it was on. The rivalry between the Brady and DiMera families seemed more real to me than my own family life. Sometimes I shouted at the screen.

  I had been watching Days of Our Lives with subtitles. Then one day I realized that I understood one of the English words. The word was ‘anything’.


  Gone with the Wind

  Manbij, 2013

  In case you think I only know TV, I also liked reading books. Of course I had no way to get them myself, so I had to borrow them from Nasrine or sometimes steal them from her shelf when she was out. Just before we moved to Manbij she got Gone with the Wind from Jamila’s grown-up stepson (I forgot to mention that Jamila’s husband has two wives which I was a bit shocked about when I found out, even though my grandfather has four as is allowed in our culture).

  That became my favourite book. Margaret Mitchell is just a genius because through the whole novel you are thinking something will happen between Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley who she is pursuing, then suddenly the scoundrel Rhett Butler shows up and turns out to be the main character and the whole story is actually about Rhett and his love for her, so I’m like what! I love the twist, someone is the bad guy then turns out to be the main character the story revolves around. Also, like us in Syria, Scarlett is trying to survive in the middle of a civil war and keep the home she loves.

  The good thing about the books was you could read them by torch or candlelight, and it didn’t matter when there was no electricity. The bad thing was there never seemed to be any characters in wheelchairs. Well, only the rich friend Clara in Heidi, and Clara ended up walking anyway.

  Though I love Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is the last person I would like to be. She is beautiful with a teeny waist but vain and spoilt. I don’t blame her for her behaviour. She was an inexperienced child and when she wanted something – Ashley – and couldn’t have him, she decided to seek revenge for her wounded ego. Some people think it’s a weakness for women to follow their heart, but personally I am glad to belong to the gender that gives all they have without expecting anything in return. Of course, we don’t really have love marriages in our culture, so we don’t have Scarlett’s problem. Mostly we marry our cousins to keep all property in our family, though sometimes I worried who would agree to marry me, being disabled.

  Around the same time Nasrine got Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, which both of us loved, and I kept snatching it from her stuff whenever she went out. She was cross, but what she could do? Like I say, disability benefits.

  I spent my fourteenth birthday reading that book. It was the first time I hadn’t celebrated a birthday with cake and sweets, but I didn’t like it at all in Manbij so I refused to celebrate. Also there’s something not right about celebrating a birthday in a war. The only good thing – but it was also scary – was I would be meeting my eldest brother Shiar for the first time. He called a few days before New Year’s Eve to say he was coming back to Syria to make a film. I was a little bit nervous. What if I didn’t feel the way I was supposed to about a brother, and what if he didn’t like me or found me strange? I wasn’t sure if he really knew to what extent I couldn’t walk. Since we left Aleppo I of course had no more treatment and my legs had got worse again. Also I never liked our house being crowded and now there would be even more people coming to see the famous film-maker.

  The house got very busy, my mother and sisters making preparations. Mustafa had managed to get a turkey despite the shortages of the war, and that was cooked on the first day as we waited for Shiar to arrive. I was preparing myself for the big moment. The one thing I didn’t want to do was get emotional – I didn’t want to cry. But when Shiar walked through the door and hugged me, he cried.

  I soon forgot all my worries about how to behave in front of Shiar because he looked and acted like a member of the family. People came to see him, and after they left we would stay up until like 3.30 a.m. talking. Those were happy times. I had never had three brothers at home. All that was missing was Farhad, but he was far away in a town called Sheffield in England making pizzas. That’s what he does, even though he trained to be a dentist. We imagined Europe to be so rich, but for a while he even lived on the streets.

  Shiar was shocked by the bombing and the way we ha
d all got used to it. ‘How can you live like this?’ he asked over and over. He had come to shoot a new film called Road to Aleppo, and Bland was going to be in it. Bland, a movie star! They drove around looking for locations and one day went to visit his old school in the west, then on to the Cultural Centre as Shiar used to go there a lot as a boy. That’s when they first saw the people we later called Daesh. There were about eight of them and they were in black clothes with balaclavas masking their faces and had closed off the street with their pickups. On the front of the Centre they had painted the words ‘Islamic State’. It was the first time we had heard of them.

  As spring came, more of them appeared. We weren’t sure if they were the same as Jabhat al-Nusra or different, but they looked similar with their long beards and short trousers. Prince and the other commanders disappeared, and our neighbours were not unhappy about that as they had been harassing people.

  The men in black were kind to people to start with. Once Mustafa was eating in a restaurant and some of them came in and even paid for his meal and for the others dining there. They held dawa forums – kind of public meetings – in the town square, where they talked about jihad against the Assad regime and ran tug-of-war competitions. They offered medical services and provided fuel cheaper than we had been buying on the black market. They even organized a cantaloupe-eating contest for children.

  Then more foreigners arrived among them, black and blond people, not just Arabs. Billboards appeared bearing odd-sounding slogans like ‘Yes to Sharia Rule in Manbij!’ They started to say everyone must cover their wife and daughters and began beating women who didn’t. They made prisons and they jailed my cousin as he had a tattoo on his forehead: they said, ‘You are like a woman,’ and forced him to go on a religious course. It was the same with anyone dressed in jeans. As for women, if my mother or sisters went out they had to be totally covered in black.

  Shiar’s daughter Rawan had come with him, the one who wouldn’t play with me when we were little. She was completely European having grown up in Germany, and now had to cover up in a dark hijab. She thought it was funny to start with, but as summer came it was very hot and it was hard to walk if you weren’t used to it. She got fed up.

  It was scary and confusing. One day Nasrine was bringing me out to Mustafa’s car when what we thought was a Daesh pickup passed, then turned round and came back. My hair was uncovered as always and our hearts stopped. ‘Sister, sister, is there a man to talk to?’ one of them shouted. ‘Yes,’ she said and called Bland. It turned out they were FSA and wanted to know if we needed a wheelchair. We said no, even though I didn’t have one.

  Neighbours we had known for twenty years and who had joined the FSA when they came, now joined Daesh. You might think it odd that people just accepted these outsiders telling them what to do, but Bland said the problem was that Manbij was an uneducated town and people were afraid of not being seen as Islamic. ‘You can make them believe any superstition. Just say “Allahu Akbar” three times and everyone comes to you,’ he said. He was right – Manbij is a backward place, where women never had rights anyway. When we lived there before, Nasrine and our cousin had been the only girls who didn’t cover their hair at the high school.

  In another town called al-Dana which Daesh had moved into around the same time, residents took to the streets in July to protest against the harsh Islamic laws. Around twenty-five people were shot dead and two FSA commanders beheaded, their heads placed next to a dustbin in the town centre. How could these people say they were for Islam? There is no religion in the world that lets you kill innocent people.

  We realized later they had moved into Manbij and other towns either because they were border crossings (like Jarablus on the Turkish border) enabling them to bring in their people or because (like Manbij itself and al-Bab) they were strategic strongholds on the road to Raqqa, the city which they would make their headquarters. So now we didn’t just have to worry about regime bombing, we also had fanatics like those in Saudi Arabia coming after us.

  And Assad just got worse. He was getting assistance from the Iranians, who were helping him push back the rebels. They were even bringing in Afghan fighters as mercenaries. In August 2013 he used sarin gas on rebel-held districts in Damascus. It was like Halabja in 1988 all over again. I remember the date, it was 21 August and I had been watching Days. When it finished I flipped through the channels and accidentally saw Al Jazeera showing all these dead bodies. It was awful. I used my walker to drag myself to the bathroom and turned on the shower, still wearing all my clothes. When I came out dripping wet I asked Nasrine to make me a coffee, which I am not allowed to drink.

  By then Shiar had finished shooting his film and gone back to Germany. He told me the story of the film and asked me what I thought of it. It’s about a man who comes back from Germany trying to find his mother in Aleppo. He meets a girl photographer who offers to help him, then they come across a bombed village and when they try to get help for the victims, they end up locked up by the rebels. ‘I don’t like it because there’s no hope in it and we need to believe in hope,’ I replied. He started crying. I think it was the wrong thing to say.

  More and more people we knew were leaving the country. Some of our cousins and neighbours started to say they wished the revolution had never happened. I didn’t agree. ‘Would you be happy if you are ruled by the tenth generation of Assads?’ I asked them. ‘I don’t think so.’

  Yet in some ways life still went on as if nothing was happening. Around the same time was the wedding of my brother Mustafa. Like I said, I hate my siblings’ weddings. Actually my all-time favourite episode in Days of Our Lives was the one fans call Black Wedding when my favourite character EJ DiMera – yes he’s the bad guy – marries Sami from the rival Brady family.

  In case you don’t know, EJ is the son of the biggest villain on the show, crime-boss Stefano DiMera. EJ is very handsome and has a British accent because he was packed off to boarding school in Britain – Eton with Prince William! – then Oxford. After that he became a racing driver, but then his father summoned him back to America to make life hell for the Brady family. It was clear EJ would do anything to win his father’s love and be part of a family for the first time, but anyone could see really that Stefano was just using him and not capable of love.

  To please his father – and infuriate the Bradys – EJ seduces Sami Brady, who is the black sheep of her family. She ends up pregnant and they get married. This is supposed to end the vendetta, only he gets shot in the back by her ex-husband Lucas just after they say ‘I do’. That was kind of funny for me as I had thought Days was so different to our lives, but in our society we have vendettas – like the one that made us move from Kobane – and we often resolve them by marriage.

  In our tradition people often fire guns at weddings to celebrate. I couldn’t see what there was to celebrate as weddings meant losing another member of my family. Ayee tried to explain that this time we would be gaining someone – Dozgeen, Mustafa’s bride, who was only a few years older than me. They were even going to live in our house to start with, and we would go and stay with our cousins next door. I couldn’t see how that was good.

  Soon enough Dozgeen was brought from Kobane. She didn’t have any wedding dress and it took them four hours to come through small villages because of the fighting. When she arrived I was terribly tired and my stomach was upset, so I just wanted to be left alone, but it was a historic moment in our family. The house filled with guests who stayed until late and did traditional dancing and acted like there was no war or Daesh, and I had to smile all the time as if I was enjoying myself.

  Ayee was right. Having Dozgeen was like getting a new sister. The first day after the wedding she was wearing a beautiful purple dress and sat on a chair and I started interrogating her. ‘What’s your favourite colour? What’s your favourite film? Your favourite food?’ She answered everything, then she told me her mother had advised her to be nice to me because I was very precious to the family.

>   It was good to have someone new in the house as my TV kept going off in the power-cuts, which was terribly annoying because every morning I got up desperate for the latest twist in the love affair between EJ and Sami, or EJami as we fans call them.

  After EJ gets shot, Sami is forced to pretend to love him to try to help him to recover, then when he does, he has an affair with Sami’s arch-rival Nicole and gets her pregnant too. The story of EJ and Sami is basically this explosive love affair where they fight and get together and fight and lie and fight some more. Somehow even though EJ is mean and cruel he is also so fragile and desperate to be loved – and his father so cruel – that you end up rooting for him.

  So in addition to all the stress of the bombing and my own family wedding, I had to deal with all the goings-on of this rebellious couple. Sometimes I thought I would go mad.

  And I kept missing key episodes, because the show was broadcast on MBC4 from Saturday to Wednesday between 9.15 and 10 a.m. and Manbij’s electricity supply was rationed. Some days it would go off at 6 a.m. and come back at 9 a.m. just in time, but other days infuriatingly the power would go off at 7 a.m. and come back at 10 a.m. There was a rerun at 4 p.m., but at that time the living room was often full of guests with their awful migrant news or my father and his friends talking about the situation, so I would miss it. When I couldn’t watch Days it felt as if I didn’t have my friends when I needed them most, even though they had no idea of my existence.

  I kept telling my family I couldn’t miss any episodes because they were my English lessons. Since discovering I could understand the word ‘anything’, I had started trying to understand more English. Soon I realized I knew lots of the words and began collecting phrases. I loved it when I could understand whole sentences. The other good thing about Shiar coming to stay had been practising English with him as he spoke it a bit. I didn’t know anyone else who spoke it.

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